Roberto Martínez and Gareth Southgate share distinct managerial traits.
Neither won a major trophy at club level, besides the 2013 FA Cup final, when Martínez’s Wigan beat Manchester City only to be relegated from the Premier League that same season, a fate Southgate also suffered at Middlesbrough in 2009.
And yet, six years ago, this unlikely pair took charge of the most talented squads ever produced by Belgium and England.
Belgium were terrible in their opening two matches against Canada and Morocco. Martínez does not currently look capable of guiding some of the best players in Europe to the World Cup final in Lusail on December 18th.
Kevin De Bruyne’s interview in the Guardian last Saturday had shades of Roy Keane’s Irish Times article from Saipan. De Bruyne stated that this Belgium side are “too old” and had “no chance” of prevailing at the 2022 tournament. He’s 31, the same age as Eden Hazard, Thibaut Courtois is 30, and Romelu Lukaku is only 29.
What a comment for De Bruyne to make at such a crucial moment in the history of Belgian football. Every other team in Qatar would fancy their chances with that quartet of star power and seven mules.
But Belgium look nothing like the number-two ranked side in the world.
Martínez made matters worse after the 2-0 loss to Morocco, by claiming to know nothing about his best player’s feature-length article despite it being published 24 hours before the match!
That alone borders on incompetence by the manager and his communications department, but Martínez’s comments in the press room – where he seems to be more comfortable than the changing room among his players – were categoric: nothing to see here.
He followed up with an old classic: maybe Kevin’s words were taken out of context. When the quotes were then read out, he suggested it was a “double bluff,” used as a form of motivation.
Sometimes you can be too media savvy.
Reports of a bust-up between the players, when Jan Vertonghen allegedly confronted Eden Hazard and De Bruyne with Lukaku needing to intervene, sound overly dramatic.
Hazard and Courtois subsequently denied there is a rift in camp, but Vertonghen (35) has remained tight-lipped since a vague post-match dig at De Bruyne over the interview.
Draw your own conclusions, but I heard Lukaku fell out with Martínez at Everton, and not over his coaching methods, but over his man management.
That does not chime with the Spaniard’s public persona; Martínez appears to court the media, he is polished and quotable, but that is not the feeling within the game from players that I know he has managed.
De Bruyne is still the best midfielder in the Premier League but I’ve never seen him play so poorly as he did against Canada. Whoever made the call to give him man of the match was not drinking Bud-Zero. Even De Bruyne said as much and against Morocco he was peripheral when Belgium were staring down the barrel of elimination.
All is not well in the Red Devils’ camp and the tournament is poorer for it.
England are much better off after last night’s win. At the Euros last year Southgate had the strongest midfielders, the most talented attackers and second best defence, behind Italy, yet come the final they went 1-0 up and froze.
That’s when a manager shows his worth because players, the great players in particular, must be put in the positions to unveil their natural ability. See Argentina’s shape allowing Messi hover on the edge of the Mexico box for Ángel di María to pick him out. See a brilliant World Cup goal.
Flawed decision-making is a legitimate charge to level at both but Southgate saw the writing on the wall this week.
I think the top European managers, Didier Deschamps, Louis van Gaal and Luis Enrique, would have all freshened up the English side for the US game with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Phil Foden.
Foden’s goals against Wales and his ability to burst past defenders, ends any debate about how vital he is to England at this World Cup.
Alexander-Arnold’s World Cup debut also felt timely. They are motoring again.
England and Belgium are running out of time, with “stage-managers” at the helm rather than the elite coach these special crops need.
I’ll devour humble pie if Southgate or Martínez prove me wrong when they come up against an organised team, like the Americans but with better players.
My adopted nation, meanwhile, were among the first teams sent packing from Qatar. I have been watching the mess inside Canada Soccer for three years now and there are clear comparisons to the FAI’s chaotic administrative arm in the 1990s, through to the end of John Delaney’s time as chief executive.
Canada now has 3½ years to get their act together before the World Cup comes to Vancouver and Toronto. Fail to prepare, again, and another humiliating collapse is guaranteed. I laid out some fundamental problems in an earlier column, and unfortunately the chickens came home to roost.
Canada Soccer needs a root and branch upheaval but there’s also an easy win. Imagine coach John Herdman avoided saying his team was going to “Eff Croatia” before his tactical naivety spread the pitch with wingers, to gift Luka Modrić the run of the Khalifa International stadium.
“I want to thank the Canada coach for the motivation,” said Andrej Kramaric after scoring twice in the 4-1 thumping. “In the end, Croatia demonstrated who Eff’d who.”